New Wine in Old Bottles Never did Work

Which Old Testament prophecy is unique, in that it is quoted not only in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle of Romans? The answer is the prophecy of Isaiah: “Hear, indeed, but understand not; and see, indeed, but perceive not.” (Isaiah 6:9) God’s message to Isaiah then was, “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.”

If this prophecy refers only to the historic return of the Jews from their seventy-year exile in Babylon, then why did the well-versed rabbi Jesus quote it when referring to the Jews of his day; and why did Paul later quote it when addressing the Jews in Rome — once by letter and once in person?

Let there be no doubt as to whom this prophecy applies. Jesus spoke to the crowds that flocked to him in parables but to his disciples plainly. When they asked why, he said, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever has, to him it shall be given, and he shall have more in abundance; but whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that [which] he has.” Then Jesus applied Isaiah’s prophecy to the Jews in general. The account of his words supplied by the three other gospel writers confirms this.

Paul’s final statement to the Jewish leaders in Rome leaves no doubt at all. “Well spoke the Holy Spirit by Isaiah the prophet unto our fathers, saying, ‘Go to this people, and say, Hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive, for the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.’”

Paul’s application of Isaiah’s prophecy in his earlier epistle to the Romans had left no room for doubt on the matter. “Israel has not obtained that which he seeks for; but the elect [chosen] have obtained it, and the rest were hardened. (According as it is written, ‘God has given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear’) unto this day.” (Romans 11:7,8)

The Lord’s statement, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” is modified in the second and third chapters of Revelation because by then the Spirit had taken his place as their Teacher. It becomes, “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Spiritual blindness and deafness were soon to become as common in churches as they had been in synagogues.

My point in writing the above is this: those Christians who seek in Judaism what they have not found in Christianity will discover that dead works are an unsatisfying substitute for living faith. No attachment of Christianity to Judaism is acceptable. (I make a distinction between Judaism and Abrahamic faith.) When Jesus spoke of the inability of an old wine bottle to contain new wine, this matter was very much on his mind. Yet there are those Christians who think Christianity incomplete unless it regains its once strong cultural ties to Judaism (because the first Christians were Jewish, they feel that a common bond rounds out their Christian faith).

I respect the Jewish people enormously. This aside, I do not believe that the religion that rejected its messiah has anything to add to his message. The conflict between the Jewish rulers and the first apostles is clear from Acts 4:23-30, in which the latter, in quoting the beginning of Psalm 2, identify the former with raging heathen! (If you think my words are extreme, you have not heard what that Jewish rabbi and other commentators on Israel National Radio think of Christians who see themselves as quasi-Jews.)

What of the Jewish people today? Not in respect to their politics or culture, or their undoubted right to practice their faith without oppression from anyone; but rather as to how God saw them and spoke of them through Isaiah the prophet; and as to whether this has changed since the time of the New Testament.

“Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears.” (Isaiah 43:8) Who are these people? They are Jews whose eyes God will open. “And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight.” These words connect us to the promise, in Isaiah 40:3-5 of one who would prepare the way of the LORD – revealed in the opening of the New Testament as John the Baptist.

The “paths they have not known” will be a new journey of grace and of faith to those whose eyes and ears are opened by the Gospel. Many Jews began this journey with John’s baptism of preparation, and continued it when Jesus began to minister. One of the Lord’s greatest miracles was the opening of the eyes of a man born blind; but when the Jewish authorities rejected it he declared that they were spiritually blind (John 9:39-41).

“Hear you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is as blind as my servant, or as deaf as the messenger I have sent? Who is as blind as he that is perfect, and as blind as the LORD’S servant? Seeing many things, but not observing; opening the ears; but he does not hear.” (Isaiah 42:18, 19) Those chosen as the ideal Servant had become, spiritually speaking, audibly and visually impaired.

These verses refer to the people of Israel, who were chosen to be God’s “servant”, collectively. It is increasingly common for Christians to see the Jews of today as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah; but from the many Old and New Testament texts I have quoted it is clear that the servant’s sufferings are due to this deafness and blindness (Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2 attribute their lack of spiritual hearing and vision to foolishness and rebellion.)

The Suffering Servant in one sense is the Jewish race; but in a far greater sense the Suffering Servant is he of whom Isaiah prophesied: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6; 53:3; Matthew 26:67; Luke 22:63)

It is by fully understanding (and by sharing in) Christ’s sufferings that we perceive him to be the Great Suffering Servant; not one who closed his ears but one whose ears God awakened, “morning by morning” (Isaiah 50:4). Some see the Jews as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant because of the terrible afflictions that have befallen them as a people throughout their history; but it is the Greater Suffering Servant, Jesus the Christ, who best fits the description, and it is he alone who can deliver this world from its awful sufferings.

It is by accepting and by voluntarily confessing the sufferings and death of Jesus, the Great Suffering Servant that we are saved, and are able to start out on a spiritual journey that begins with God’s forgiveness and ends in resurrection. Meantime, we should turn away from substitutes for salvation dressed in robes of biblical religion, and instead turn to our Lord Jesus Christ, our ears open to the voice of the Spirit of God and our eyes wide open in expectation of his coming kingdom.

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